Details sometimes get lost in history, especially sports history. We remember the championships, the players, the coaches. We’ll celebrate them for their excellence and perseverance. But do we ever think about the sliding door moments? They can be the difference between unforgettable and forgotten.
Pat Riley is one of the most important people in NBA lore. You can’t author the history of the league without him. But as influential as he remains, it’s possible that the Riley we know today might not exist if not for a freak bicycle accident.
Perhaps Jack McKinney, a man many of us had never heard of, might have become Riley.
HBO’s Winning Time gives McKinney his due. We’re introduced to this long-forgotten Lakers coach in an episode hilariously and appropriately titled “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” That’s accurate because while the Lakers have long been associated with star-power, Magic Johnson’s first pro coach was an obscure person.
As Winning Time informs us, McKinney was Plan B. UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian was supposed to be the big name that would pilot this brand-new era of basketball. But when Tarkanian turned the Lakers down, owner Jerry Buss was left scrambling. He wound up hiring a little-known assistant from another NBA team.
Enter McKinney, an assistant for the Portland Trailblazers who won the 1977 championship. The team was coached by Jack Ramsay and led by Bill Walton. They were famous. McKinney was not. But with the Lakers in dire need of a coach in July 1979, McKinney got the job.
In Winning Time, actor Tracy Letts portrays McKinney as a basketball nerd (as seen above in a screengrab from that trailer). He looks like an accountant but is passionate and innovative. The HBO series highlights that it was McKinney’s plan for the Lakers to play fast and play with two point guards: Magic and Norm Nixon. This should sound familiar. The roots of what eventually became the Showtime Lakers came from McKinney. These were his ideas.
Of course, this was forgotten over time. We would remember McKinney if his Lakers coaching career had lasted more than 13 games. We would remember McKinney if not for a bizarre twist of fate.
In November 1979, McKinney rode his bike on his way to play tennis with Lakers assistant Paul Westhead. According to the New York Times, “while approaching a stop sign, the gears on his bicycle locked; McKinney flew over the handlebars, and his head smashed into the concrete.”
McKinney’s head injuries knocked him out for the season. Westhead took over on an interim basis and hired Riley, then a broadcaster, as his assistant. This completely random accident completely changed the lives of three men.
Westhead went on to guide the Lakers to a championship in Magic’s rookie season. But two seasons later he was replaced by Riley, and the rest is history. Riley enjoyed one of the greatest runs the league has ever seen, leading Los Angeles to four titles in the 1980s.
Riley, Magic, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made the Lakers into the franchise that exists today. But could all of this have been achieved with McKinney at the helm?
Even Riley has wondered.
What happened to McKinney? He did land a second head coaching job. He was hired by the Indiana Pacers in 1980 and was named Coach of the Year in his first season. But he was fired after the 1983-84 season. McKinney got another shot with the Kansas City Kings but resigned after a 1-8 start.
At the age of 49, his coaching career was over. It was a sad end considering what could have been. Winning Time is based on Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book Showtime, and McKinney told Pearlman: “Life isn’t fair. I’m OK with how everything has turned out. I’m loved.”
McKinney passed away in 2018. Winning Time brought his story back into the spotlight. Letts’ portrayal is a great tribute to McKinney’s vision of basketball.
“I’m really glad that Mr. McKinney’s going to get some attention as a result of this series,” Letts told Looper.com. “I hope his family is pleased to see that, because I’m sure for them, it becomes important that he’s remembered for his contribution.”
In Winning Time, Letts’ McKinney memorably tells the Lakers: “We won’t wait for anyone to give us breaks. We’ll make our own.”
The real McKinney never got the chance to make his own in Los Angeles.
[HBO on YouTube]